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First Ladies and the Archivist Who Tells Their Stories
National First Ladies Library’s Michelle Gullion is on a mission to elevate women through the lives of presidents’ wives.
Michelle Gullion sits in her office at the National First Ladies Library and Museum in Canton, Ohio, and embraces the controlled chaos around her. She points to one corner where a stack of books about former First Ladies Barbara and Laura Bush has taken root — including the 1990 bestselling children’s book “Millie’s Book: As Dictated to Barbara Bush.” In the other corner, she gestures toward files she hasn’t gotten around to organizing yet.
America’s first ladies are her world. If there is a point person for presidential wives, Gullion is the person who probably knows the most. She often is the first call for people from across the world — scholars, educators, authors, donors, and descendants to name a few — who are interested in first ladies.
For the past 18 years, Gullion has served as the director of collections and research at the library, which is part of the First Ladies National Historic Site operating in partnership with the National Park Service. There, she oversees the museum collection housed in the childhood home of former First Lady Ida Saxton McKinley, who was married to the 25th president, William McKinley (who was in office from 1897 until his assassination in 1901). And while the field of first ladies is still in its infancy, albeit growing, Gullion says visitors, especially women, can learn a lot through first ladies’ shared history. Particularly, she says, that we are not alone in life’s trials and tribulations.
She reflects for a moment on her own life.
The history Gullion is steeped in has taught her, over time, that there’s another first lady out there that has also gone through certain struggles or sometimes multiple first ladies. She draws on that shared experience as personal inspiration. “These are women just like I am and they are making tough decisions,” she says. “I just relate to them.”
“These are women just like I am and they are making tough decisions,” she says. “I just relate to them.” — Michelle Gullion, director of collections and research at the National First Ladies Library and Museum
The seeds of knowledge
Gullion grew up on a cattle farm in rural central Indiana outside the town of Frankfort. As the oldest of three children with a younger brother and sister, Gullion recalls “working just as hard as her brother” pulling her weight around the farm feeding cattle and completing other chores. But, it was the summers spent at her grandparents’ farm 17 miles away where she was first given a glimpse of world history. Her grandmother, a deeply religious farmer’s wife, had a collection of scholarly art books, including “History of Art” by H. W. Janson. Together, they poured through the images.
“My grandmother would tell [me] about the biblical story as [I’m] looking at this painting,” Gullion says, adding how her grandmother, educated through high school, gravitated to religious art and works by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. It left a lifelong impression. “I loved that you could tell a story with this painting and this artist,” Gullion says. “It was so much more entertaining than just having to read the Bible.”
Like many families, her parents would take trips to museums and historic sites. Gullion remembers visiting the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn, Michigan, and other sites out west. And while she traveled the countryside, she paid close attention to the houses along the way. “These people live here and they're doing something totally different than we do in Indiana and it’s so cool,” she recalls.
It wasn’t until Gullion was an undergraduate at Hiram College in Ohio, and unsure about her major, that she decided to take an Introduction to Art History class. Her professor, at the time, saw her outperforming her peers (much in part to Gullion’s childhood exposure to her grandmother’s art books) and asked if she’d ever consider art history as a major. “What could I do with that?” she asked.
The answer lit a path to her future like a camera flash in the night.
“You can work in a museum,” the professor suggested.
“You mean you can actually work in these places that I just revere?” Gullion recounts with a wide smile and infectious laugh.
It did. And, she did. Early on, she worked at the Akron Art Museum, Ohio, as a curatorial assistant and eventually in research and exhibit installation. Later, she completed her master’s in library and information science from Kent State University, where she specialized in archival management, before joining the National First Ladies Library and Museum. What she didn't realize then was she would be entering an emerging field with much work ahead for researchers.
First ladies emerging history
When Gullion first interviewed for the National First Ladies Library in 2005, the organization was in dire need of an archivist and someone with exhibit experience. During the interview, Gullion recalls explaining her strength in exhibits, but divulged when asked about her weaknesses that she didn’t know first ladies history. Something one would think could be disqualifying.
To her surprise, they laughed and said: “No one does.”
During the interview, Gullion recalls explaining her strength in exhibits, but divulged when asked about her weaknesses that she didn’t know first ladies history. Something one would think could be disqualifying.
To her surprise, they laughed and said: “No one does.”
In hindsight, Gullion says that comment meant they had a lot of work to do to help educate the American public about first ladies' contributions to the presidency and to society. It was also a moment in time when women’s history was emerging as a field, according to Gullion. Up until that point, history books were largely written by men.
“It's changing,” Gullion says. “I see all these wonderful [female] scholars coming together and writing books and adding and finding new information about these women and really adding to our knowledge of them.”
Despite the scholarly work being done in the field of first ladies, Gullion is still surprised by how little presidential libraries pay attention to their first ladies.
“That really shocks me. Still does,” she says. “I'm just always flabbergasted that [first ladies] don't get more credit in their own presidential libraries.”
And at times, what frustrates Gullion more is getting people to think first ladies are worthwhile learning about. She’ll never forget, she says, when one man visiting the library told her he would pay money — as he reached for his wallet — for her to do an exhibit on presidents’ mistresses. Apparently, it comes up from time to time. Gullion says she’s always shocked that there’s curiosity about presidents’ other women instead of a desire to learn more about a first lady and what she’s accomplished in her life.
“That’s not first ladies history,” Gullion says. “That’s their president’s problem.”
First ladies are unique figures in American history, Gullion says, because they chose this man to marry and he became president of the United States. There are early first ladies in history, she notes, about whom not much more is known and Gullion is looking forward to scholars filling in the gaps.
Things have changed since those early days at the library and historic site. Patty Dowd Schmitz, National First Ladies Library and Museum president and CEO, who joined the organization earlier this year, describes Gullion as a global source of first ladies information.
“She has to be knowledgeable, not just about one or two first ladies, but she has to have a very extraordinary working knowledge of all the first ladies,” — Patty Dowd Schmitz, National First Ladies Library and Museum president and CEO.
“She has to be knowledgeable, not just about one or two first ladies, but she has to have a very extraordinary working knowledge of all the first ladies,” Schmitz says.
Gullion accomplishes that by constantly reading and seeking out new information and books. The library’s mission, according to Schmitz, is not to narrowly focus on first ladies during the time period in which their husbands served as president, but to spotlight their entire lives. That holistic history helps inform people about who first ladies were as people, and what they contributed to the country when they had that platform as first lady. It also draws connections of who first ladies were, how they lived and grew up to how that life experience informed their time in the White House. And, ultimately, what they became after they were first ladies.
“She’s very passionate about the mission and the women,” Schmitz says.
The art of acquiring artifacts
It’s the artifacts that the museum acquires that help tell the stories of first ladies. And how the museum obtains artifacts ranges from donations by descendants to Gullion outbidding others in online auctions. Just recently, Gullion won an online auction of a 2016 Obama White House Christmas card. She'd bid on several, but that was the one she really wanted for the museum because it helps tell the story of how the Obamas celebrated the holidays at the White House.
That acquired artifact was soon followed by, according to Schmitz, a personal meeting with a former Gerald R. Ford (38th president from 1974 to 1977) administration official who wanted to donate an entire collection of White House holiday cards. Those will be part of an upcoming Christmas card exhibit.
“Every item we get [Gullion] is captivated by,” Schmitz says.
But, one of the most meaningful artifacts that the museum acquired recently was a diamond ring of Ida McKinley’s, their hometown first lady. Ida McKinley was all about diamonds (not pearls), says Gullion, who describes pictures of Ida McKinley wearing rings on all her fingers.
“There’s no super deep history to this diamond other than it’s beautiful, it’s big, and it’s what she loved,” Gullion says.
Beyond the history is humanity
The artifacts, the research and books all help Gullion tell the stories of America’s first ladies.
But, what Gullion strives to do with the history is to illustrate a picture for people to understand the women behind the title. What she has discovered over the years is that first ladies are mostly like the rest of us — human.
Like many women, first ladies, too, are the ones who take care of the family — they are the person who minds everything that keeps the family together, she says. And doing all that for a president complicates that even more. It’s also through first ladies that people can learn what makes the president more human. Then, there are moments of unfathomable tragedy and suffering, such as the loss of children, from which some presidents and first ladies are not excluded.
Calvin Coolidge, the 38th president who served from 1923 to 1929, and his wife, Grace, lost their youngest son at the age of 16 to blood poisoning. Yet, the country still had to be run. “It really affects Calvin Coolidge, I think even more than it affects Grace Coolidge because she doesn’t have to run the country for one thing,” Gullion says. “But, she also displays this incredible grace and strength that she can power through this.”
Or, take Jacqueline Kennedy after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
“What she leads the country through, that strength to persevere under really hard circumstances that not only affects them personally, but the entire country,” Gullion says. She also points to Laura Bush and her outward strength after 9/11. For instance, in a speech Bush says, “In two months, we have seen the worst and best of human nature. We have felt sadness and anger and fear, yet out of those emotions have risen courage and hope.”
“She’s making us feel better, making us feel not so alone and not so scared about what we do in tumultuous times when nothing is making sense,” Gullion says.
The examples go on. But, it’s the courage of first ladies that motivates Gullion’s continued work at the library. Gullion says she, too, is contributing to the long arc of women’s history in her own way — one artifact, one exhibit at a time. That history includes the good and the bad. First ladies falter at times, Gullion says, and can agonize over their poor choices. They, like many women, are their own worst critics.
“I want women to realize that we need to keep [up] the good fight. I'm doing my part,” she says. And she admits she doesn’t have all the answers, but neither did first ladies necessarily, because “they're human beings.”
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